How to Photograph a Rainbow

Rainbow PhotographDouble rainbow! flickr photo by Paul Williams shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

Rainbows are a rare and magical occurrence. They form when sunlight and rain combine in a very unique way.

When light enters a water droplet at a specific angle, it forms a rainbow. Breaking the sunlight into the seven different colors of the spectrum. Much like when sunlight passes through a triangular piece of glass called a prism.

After it rains, the air in the atmosphere is filled with raindrops. Each of those droplets acts like a prism, dispersing the light into seven colors.

But how do you photograph a rainbow?

That one is a bit trickier.

First of course you must find a rainbow.

Which is quite possibly the hardest part. It’s a bit like finding a four-leaf clover. It almost always happens when you least expect it.

So the most important thing is to always be prepared. Keep a “run and gun” lightweight camera on you at all times. Especially in prime rainbow conditions. For example, when you have rain shower on a bright, sunny day.

Rainbows are also common around waterfalls, sprinklers, and fountains.

But my guess is that you want to capture those big, bright rainbows in the sky.

Here are a few tips for photographing rainbows…

Pay attention to the background.

You can’t get closer to a rainbow. It’s an optical illusion. It will always appear to be the same distance away regardless of whether you move towards it or away from it.

So much for that pot of gold 🙂


You can compose your shot by walking parallel to it. Allowing you to “frame” the shot how you think it will look best.

The background is particularly important if you want to get a nice, clear photo of your rainbow. The darker the scene BEHIND the rainbow, the more the beams will stand out.

Dark clouds work well. A very pale or bright blue sky will make for a very faint rainbow.

You can of course pull some of these colors out in post-editing, but it’s best to get them when shooting if possible.

Frame the Shot.

Rainbow photos can feel a bit empty if there’s nothing interesting in the foreground. So take some time to find an interesting shot. The rainbow can act as a frame for a building, a barn, a mountain, or even a road.

You could also focus on a large tree in the middle of the photo.

Composition really is key when it comes to photographing a rainbow.

Shoot Quickly.

You normally have lots of time to compose your shot. But rainbows are a rare occurrence. And they disappear just as fast.

So you’ll need to shoot pretty quickly. Take a quick moment to to compose an interesting foreground and background. Then fire off as many shots as possible to capture different angles, compositions and backgrounds.

The more photos you take, the more likely you are to get a few gems.

Try some Polarizing Filters.

You can experiment with polarizing filters to get different saturations of colors, reflections and levels of contrast. A circular polarizing filter can really bring out a rainbow’s color. Especially if you’re not able to shoot the rainbow against a dark background.

But also be aware that the normal polarized position could make a rainbow disappear completely! This is because rainbows are also polarized. But there’s an easy fix. Simply rotate the filter until the colors intensify.

Use a Wide Angle Lens to Capture Both Ends.

If you want to capture a rainbow in it’s entirety you’ll need a wide angle lens. You can often capture the full arc with a full frame camera and a 24mm lens. But you’ll need a 16-35mm lens to capture a double rainbow.

If you aren’t able to capture the full rainbow, don’t worry! There are plenty of interesting compositions you can create with a bit of creativity.

Or you could simply shoot a panaroma to capture the entire scene.

Look for the double rainbow.

I’ve only seen this a few times in my life. But it’s a glorious sight if you’re able to catch it. When one rainbow is visible there’s often a second one higher in the sky. If you’re able to capture both, you will be lucky indeed.

Use Your Tripod.

I realize you might not always have a tripod on hand when you spot a rainbow but if you do – be sure to use it!

Because rainbows often occur in low-light situations, you have to use small apertures to maximize your depth of field. This ensures your photo looks sharp from front to back. Using a tripod will help eliminate noise, avoid any camera movement, and create tack sharp photos.

But of course… rainbows are fleeting. So the best rule of thumb may just be to capture the moment while it lasts.

Happy Rainbow Hunting!


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